Book review: The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ

I’ve never been a big fan of Philip Pullman for 2 reasons. Firstly, I don’t like his writing style and have never finished reading his books (until now). Secondly, he wants to control and direct the minds of little children away from God. In light of that I have tended to give him a wide berth. His books aren’t that widely read, and his film wasn’t very good, so it’s never been a real concern of mine.

However, as I walked through TESCO and saw the book title ‘The good man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ by Philip Pullman, I just had to buy it. Then, as I couldn’t sleep last night, I read it all. Unfortunately, I really  couldn’t sleep after reading it either!

Having scoured the internet, there isn’t much out on this book yet…just a few Anglicans being for or slightly against it. So, I don’t really know what Pullman is trying to do with this book. To be honest, its a bit odd. Writing last year on his web site, he stated about the book (before it was published)…

“The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” will be published next April by Canongate as part of their Myths series. I’ve always been fascinated by the two parts of the name of Jesus Christ, and by the difference between them. Another thing that’s interested me for a long time is the way in which the Christian church began to formulate its beliefs and establish a canon of scripture: there were many more gospels than four, but why were those four chosen and others left out? When did Paul begin to write his epistles? Was what he said different from what the gospels say? Do the gospels even agree with one another? Was there a difference between Jesus and Christ?

My version of the Jesus story doesn’t attempt to solve these questions, but I hope readers will find it interesting.

Does that help?

Not really?

This is what the publisher says…

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ throws fresh light on who Jesus was and asks the reader questions that will continue to resonate long after the final page is turned. For, above all, this book is about how stories become stories.

Let me give you the premise of the book (note, this is a huge PLOT SPOILER!!!!!…. Skip to the next section if you don’t want to know what the end of the book says).

In Pullmans myth (and he no where claims to be writing historical accuracy…indeed the back page clearly declares ‘This is a STORY.’) Mary gives birth to twins, Jesus and Christ. Jesus grows up to be a minor celebrity and miracle worker, and Christ follows him quietly, writing down everything he does. However, influenced by a stranger, who becomes an angel, who is ultimately evil, Christ stops writing what actually happened and writes down what should have happened (that is, the miraculous) via going to have an encounter with a prostitute. In the end, the evil angel gets Christ to betray Jesus (making him Judas) and then fakes the resurrection appearances as he is Jesus’ twin. He then realises that he has written a lie that will create the church (which will be evil) and feels sick.

That is the book in a nut shell.

So, why write this book? He doesn’t believe he is writing history and this is no Dan Brown conspiracy theory. My wife gave me a help in formulating this answer (thanks ;)). So, this is what we think:

  • Pullman wants to treat the historical documents of the New Testament like a made up story. By doing this he is alluding to the old liberal view that there was an historical (non-miraculous) Jesus hidden in the corrupted and made up (miraculous) Gospel documents.
  • In quoting the Gospels word for word and then dropping in a paragraph like ‘He took the loaves and the fishes, and blessed them, and then said to the crowd ‘see how I share this food out? You do the same. There’ll be enough for everyone.’ And sure enough, it turned out that one man had brought some barley cakes, and another had a couple of apples, and a third had some dried fish, and a fourth had a pocket full of raisins, and so on; and between them all, there was plenty to go round. No one was left hungry.’ Pullman is planting thoughts of how a non-miraculous interpretation should work. He is trying to manipulate the minds of little children through the stories.
  • Next he is actually planting liberal principles of interpretation, indeed it is like reading a German redaction Criticism text book. Have a look at some of these quotes of the evil angel to the chronicler Christ:

‘Remember what I told you when we first met. There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.’

‘When you come to assemble the history of what the world is living through now, you will add to the outward and visible events their inward and spiritual significance.’

Indeed, Pullman reveals Christ pondering his work as author:

‘There were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude.  He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up.’

  • Ultimately I think Pullman is mocking Jesus Christ. A brief look at my plot spoiler shows him making Jesus Christ out to be a man who sleeps with prostitutes and lies. Pullman has no fear of God, and thus conspires to mock Him, and lead children to do the same.

In reading the book, I was shocked at his Bible knowledge. He knows many stories inside out and has actually grasped some meaning. But he uses that knowledge as a weapon.

For me, I felt 2 things strongly about Pullman in reading this book:

1. He hates the church.

He has made no secret of this. Indeed, on pages 197-198 there is a huge rant about the church and power and how it just abuses people.

2. He doesn’t get grace

There is a really sad section in the book where Pullman shows how he cannot understand grace and that makes him angry and bitter. Listen to this, ‘What Jesus seemed to be saying with these stories, Christ thought, was something horrible: that God’s love was arbitrary and undeserved, almost like a lottery…’

I feel sorry for Pullman on two levels: Firstly, he has read the Bible and not understood it. He has completely missed the point of grace. This has made him angry, manipulative and blind. Secondly, Philip Pullman will one day have to stand before God and give an answer for all he has written and said, and particularly for the way he has tried to manipulate the minds of little children.

Please pray for Philip Pullman.


4 thoughts on “Book review: The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ

  1. Good review. I think Phil Pullman’s endgame is to try to continually keep christians angry and shouty, or at least to give the mass media opportunities to “report” anonymous christian outrage.

    he and his compatriots (rich dawkins, chris hitchens etc) share the same strategy. they know if the church is kept on the back foot, the message of forgiveness, grace, mercy, joy, sacrificial love, peace, goodness etc can be quietened. simple and often effective.

    the Guardian’s article on ‘The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ’ managed to say a lot without saying much about the exact point of the exercise.

    no surprise pullman knows the bible well. amazing though that you say he doesn’t get grace: just goes to show how little you can understand about god if the holy spirit doesn’t open your eyes.

    why don’t you like his writing style? i think his prose is top drawer. his descriptions of the aurora borealis throughout ‘his dark materials’ is gifted- too bad he doesn’t give god the credit.

    so… what’s the exact point of this latest book?


  2. Thanks for this review JT, I read an interview in the Times review section last week with Pullman and it struck me that his basic premise was not very new at all (Jesus really exsisted but Paul made up all the stuff about him being the Christ). What is particualry slippery about it is that his view of myth frees him up from being historically accountable, which lets him say what he likes. 2 questions:
    Is this book worth reading for an ordinary pastor’s assistant?
    Is the presence of this book on the shelves of Tesco’s an evangelistic oppurtunity?

  3. Hi Pete,
    I don’t really think it is worth reading.
    If it gets popular it may be worth using as an evangelistic tool…particularly in holding events on the historicity of the Gospels…
    By the way, I doubt you are an ‘ordinary’ pastor’s assistant! 😉
    God Bless

  4. I think your claim that Pulman is brainwashing children is a little rich given the degree of your own work with young people Pastor Jonathan. Pulman is not proposing a doctrine and presenting it to children as the final and unalterable word of the creator of the Universe. Rather, he is attempting to demolish a doctrine for which there is not a grain of scientific evidence. Why should we believe God created the world in six days, that Jonah lived inside a fish for 3 days, and that a man was born of a virgin and rose again when there is absolutely NO reliable evidence for these beliefs.

    All Pulman is doing is exposing these beliefs for the ludicrous pre-modern fantasies that they are. He is not threatening children with eternal judgement and hell fire, not stigmatizing normal sexual impulses in adolescents, and not scaring young people with talk of a figure called Satan for whom there is no evidence. Would you know a group of people who do all of the above?

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